I actually find it very tough to think or write about those early months of the first UK lockdown, as I think I have blocked most of that period out and tried to forget it. I remember being in a state of absolute fear the entire time, and not being able to focus on anything that I needed to do.
I’m a PhD student at one of the Midlands universities, studying English Literature. I was in the middle of my second year of study on my doctorate in March 2020, and about to commence on a month-long research trip to Scotland to access archives. I remember being so excited to head up to Scotland, despite the vague threat in February of a strange flu-like disease that was finally confirmed to have hit the UK. I went to Scotland anyway, but returned early, only a week into my trip, and just two days before we went into lockdown.
I had more reason to be worried than a lot of my friends in our early twenties, as my father had (and is still being treated for) aggressive cancer. I also look after my elderly grandparents, and desperately did not want to bring anything home. That train-ride home from Scotland was terrifying, five hours (pre-mask-wearing) of not knowing if the person sitting next to me was ill, and being petrified that if they did, I would pass on something horrific to my vulnerable loved ones.
Once home, and with the news increasingly blaring out horrifying statistics, with case numbers and deaths rising and rising, I became quite paralysed with fear of catching COVID. Living at home with my parents in our rural, ex-mining village, my mum and I left the house only to food shop once a week, and for our permitted one hour of exercise, when that was eventually allowed. We left my grandparents’ shopping at their door, ‘bubbling up’ with them when allowed. As the months progressed, my caring responsibilities increased. My dad became ill with arthritis, as a side effect of his ongoing treatments. He could not get out of bed, I helped him eat. My grandparents had a fire in their home, which caused a large amount of damage. We fed them for nearly six months whilst they did not have a kitchen, the fitting of which was delayed due to the numerous lockdowns.
During this time, writing was at the back of my mind. I knew that to keep on top of my PhD work, and to actually finish on time (spoiler alert, I didn’t), that I would have to continue working on my thesis during the lockdown period. The fact that the books I needed were locked in my office at university, which I wasn’t allowed into, and that I wasn’t allowed to see my friends and colleagues, who were my writing support network, meant that all progress ground to a halt.
Writing was, quite frankly, impossible when it felt the world was ending! After a few months, my funding body put on a writing retreat, for those of us to attend online and develop our ‘voice’ further, and to block out dedicated time to write. I wanted to develop my second thesis chapter and complete it to send to my supervisors. Instead, during that retreat I wrote one page, a short opening section. My sense of disappointment was intense, all I could manage was one page? Would I ever be able to finish my thesis? Would I ever be able to write anything again?
It’s been a long hard slog since then, and my PhD is still unfinished, although I’m edging (glacially) ever closer to the finish line. My caring responsibilities are still intense, and more so than before the pandemic. My elderly grandparents are even more vulnerable than before the lockdowns, as staying at home has meant their mobility has decreased rapidly. My dad is still ill, and I am still caring for him alongside working on my full-time PhD.
For me, the lockdowns were a struggle to be creative, a struggle to find the time, energy, and headspace to write. In many respects, not much has changed for me, and I think the effects of the lockdowns are still being felt by all of us in a myriad of ways.